Air-fryer Chicken Katsu Recipe

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Why It Works

  • Pounding the meat to a uniform thickness promotes quick and even cooking.
  • Salting and briefly resting the chicken before cooking improves its ability to retain moisture, leading to juicier meat.
  • Panko bread crumbs offer a craggy texture that increases surface area and crunch.

Chicken katsu is an easy dish to love. Juicy chicken cutlets coated in an incredibly crisp layer of golden-brown panko bread crumbs, served with a sweet-and-savory tonkatsu sauce and a side of crisp shredded cabbage and steamed white rice, make for a simple and delicious weeknight meal. While both our classic chicken katsu and our katsu sando recipes call for shallow frying in bubbling oil (and produce delicious results), we wanted to see if we could produce similar results in an air fryer—our favorite appliance for shortening cook time and crisping all sorts of foods.

We found that the air fryer subtracts the annoyance of deep frying while delivering absolutely perfect, you-probably-can’t-tell-the-difference-from-deep-fried results. With the help of an air fryer’s powerful convection fan (because an air fryer, as you might already know, is just a supercharged mini convection oven), we’re able to get katsu-style chicken that has juicy, tender meat encased within a light, shatteringly crisp panko crust in a fraction of the time—and with less mess—than fried versions. This easy air-fryer version of katsu comes together in about 30 minutes, and you need just a handful of ingredients to make it. 

The cutlets are wonderful with the classic katsu pairings of shredded cabbage, rice, and homemade tonkatsu sauce or a store-bought sauce like the excellent Bull-Dog brand sauce. But don’t stop there: We also love incorporating the crisp cutlets into sandwiches, serving them with just about any kind of salad, or with simple sides like air-fryer broccoli and air-fryer potatoes. Here are a few tips for golden and crisp panko-crusted chicken katsu in your air fryer. 

Serious Eats/Morgan Hunt Glaze

Tips for Crisp Air-Fryer Chicken Katsu

Pound the chicken into thin cutlets. Both boneless skinless chicken breast or thighs will work well in this recipe, though they need to be treated a little differently. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs require a bit less prep than the chicken breasts; just use a meat pounder or the bottom of a heavy skillet to pound them inside a zipper-lock bag until they are an even quarter-inch thick. Just avoid mindless bludgeoning when pounding, as this can cause tears and holes in the meat—use firm but gentle pressure, focusing on the uneven spots.

Whole chicken breast halves are too big for this recipe (especially considering the massive chickens you find at the supermarket these days), so before pounding them thin, you’ll first need to split each breast into two cutlets. It’s easy to do—if you’ve never done it before, just follow this step-by-step guide for how to cut chicken breasts into cutlets. Once split, the breasts can be pounded just like the chicken thighs.

Briefly dry-brine the chicken before cooking. Because it has a tendency to dry out, chicken—especially lean breasts—really benefits from a wet or dry brine. Treating the meat, either by soaking it in a saltwater solution (wet-brining) or by salting it and letting it rest (dry-brining), will cause its protein structure to break down a little bit, which in turn prevents the chicken from releasing moisture when cooked. Kenji tested and established in his chicken katsu recipe that dry-brining the chicken, even for just a brief time, is worth it. ( We typically prefer dry brining to wet brining because it is more efficient and that holds true for this recipe.) 

If you have time to salt your chicken and let it rest for a few hours, by all means do so, but we found that even just a 15 minute resting time yielded chicken that was juicier and better seasoned in every bite than unbrined chicken.

Is unbrined chicken bad? No, not by any means, and if you’re in a rush to get dinner on the table, you can skip this step. But if you skip the brine altogether, we’d strongly suggest skipping lean chicken breasts and using fattier chicken thighs, which are less prone to drying out. 

Stick with the classic breading technique. We use the classic three-bowl dredging technique to ensure the chicken is evenly coated with panko before cooking. Dry (flour), wet (egg), dry again (panko) is the order of operation to guarantee the panko stays glued to the chicken. Don’t be tempted to skip the initial flour dredge. The flour is like the primer of the breaded-and-fried-cutlet world—it creates an even surface for the egg to cling to, which in turn helps the outer panko layer adhere well to the chicken, so you avoid a cooked cutlet with an uneven, patchy coating.

Serious Eats/Morgan Hunt Glaze

Oil your panko. Since we are not deep frying the cutlets in a large vat of hot oil, we need to enhance the breaded cutlets’ ability to crisp and brown evenly at every stage possible. Coating the panko bread crumbs with a tablespoon of neutral oil like canola or vegetable oil before dredging promotes browning and crisping. 

Add some cooking spray and flip the cutlets for a well-browned crunchy coating. The success of this recipe relies on its ability to mimic classically prepared katsu’s crispy and browned deep-fried results. Oiling the panko as described above is one step to achieving this. The other key step is to lightly spray the tops of the chicken with cooking spray after you place the chicken in the preheated air-fryer basket. The light coating of the cooking spray is just enough to enhance browning without giving the chicken the off canned-oil flavor that can come with overzealous use of cooking spray.

Serious Eats/Morgan Hunt Glaze

This recipe was developed by Jasmine Smith; the headnote was written by Leah Colins.


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